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The Nightmare of Modern Addiction
TYPICALLY addiction is the stuff of the socially marginalised – the black sheep, the plot twist in a TV show, the downfall of a wayward teen who redeems themselves in the end.
This is not 21st-century addiction.
Addiction exists in a grey area where society at large assumes that whatever the problem, there must be an obvious treatment. Cause and effect. Good and evil. An option to be saved, to give up a wicked vice – a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ answer.
But the role of addiction and the actor that plays it are shifting quickly in our modern age, with technology addictions becoming more insidious and less treatable via the 12-step programs of the 20th century. Our views of addiction, however, haven’t shifted – they’re archetypal, still revolving around notions like “just say no”. But it’s not always that simple, as founder of Canberra-based pasta business Dish It Up, Sue Kemenes (pictured), testifies.
“I grew up in 1960s Melbourne. It was pretty tough going then,” she says. “I left home when I was 14 because my mum was an alcoholic and Dad abused me physically.”
Sue moved in with a friend and her family, started working in a “dinky little store” on Chapel Street and spent her 15th birthday drinking in a pub. One night, her friend’s older brother and his friends sexually assaulted Sue, the repercussions of which she believes set her on a destructive course, with effects that echoed through the next three decades of her life.
At 17, she became pregnant with her first daughter and went on to have another three children with her former partner.
“I drank heavily and smoked cigarettes and of course we smoked pot, cause that [was] the thing to do then,” recalls Sue. “Nothing unusual, just part of the lifestyle. The self-destruction was always there. I lived a very hard lifestyle.”
In her late twenties, Sue and her partner separated.
“We had three kids and 10 years under our belt and [his leaving] knocked the wind right out of my sails,” Sue says of the separation. “That’s when I fell into heavy drugs.”
“I was drinking, doing pot and speed every day, still with the three kids, still kept a clean house. It was pretty insane now that I think about it.”
Like many before her, Sue had a moment of clarity when she realised she couldn’t keep her life on the same trajectory.
“I just realised that it was really dangerous,” she recalls. “I was sleeping three hours a week, down to 50 kilos in weight; it was really bad and I knew it. I had friends who were over in Perth so I said, ‘I’m going over there to dry out’.”
“Three days on the train [to WA] was the last partying I ever did. I got to Perth, pulled up to my friend’s house and I couldn’t believe it. I went there to dry out and get away from all the speed and the house they were living next to had a 10-foot cyclone fence around it and caravans out the front with air conditioning going 24/7 – it was a jolly speed kitchen!”
Despite living next door to her vice, Sue used her iron willpower to “stay well away” and within a few months she had quit speed completely.
“I just went cold turkey. I don’t know how many days I was [drying out] for, because it was just so horrible, but I was over there for two months. I came back to Melbourne, picked the kids back up from their father’s and got back into life.”
Sue’s story doesn’t end there. She later met her current husband and gave up smoking, cannabis and excessive drinking.
“He took me along to a little independent Baptist Church and that was what changed my life. I’ve been clean and sober now for 23 years. I don’t have any cravings, I don’t need to go to the meetings, I no longer have to go to church … I’m free.”
When I ask Sue what sort of treatment programs she looked into at the time, she laughs.
“I didn’t go then because that’s not how I roll, honey,” she explains. “I’m very independent. I’ve always been strong – and stubborn is in there too!”
Sue’s tale of addiction follows a narrative that society believes is a one-size-fits-all for addiction. Making the conscious choice to ‘quit drugs’ cold turkey seems like a sensible and noble decision – the ‘best way to do it’. But if quitting through pure willpower and determination isn’t an option, where does that leave you?
Modern addictions are more insidious than a dealer on a street corner, and there are more voices than just angels and demons on the shoulders of society. Social media can be used to name and shame, illicit substances can be bought online, the legalisation of drugs throws a spanner into the works of moral arguments and technology can be the cause of the addiction itself. So what does a 21st-century view of addiction look like?
Kate Seselja is an elegant woman, polished and softly spoken.
She takes her time with her words, speaking slowly and deliberately and making each of her sentences count.
She’s not the woman you would expect to find pregnant and crying behind a poker machine at midnight, but that was where she was four years ago.
“As an 18-year-old, I sat down in front of a pokie machine,” says Kate. “I thought it was just harmless fun. That was the messaging I was getting – they’re just for entertainment.”
In 1997, Kate started playing the pokies with her then boyfriend so they could spend time together, but quickly began visiting by herself.
“I had no concept of how addictive they were,” says Kate. “Within a couple of months I was putting my whole pay [into the machine] on the day I received it.”
In the scheme of addiction, poker machines are a relatively new phenomenon. Being addicted to the feeling a substance creates inside your body or the taste of alcohol are universally accepted addictions – we crave a physically positive feeling, a high or a trip. So how does hitting a plastic button become an addiction?
“Poker machines cultivate addiction by teaching the brain to associate the sounds and flashing lights that are displayed when a punter “wins” with pleasure,” writes Charles Livingstone, senior lecturer at the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University.*
“And since the pattern of wins, or rewards, is random, the ‘reinforcement’ of the link between the stimuli and pleasure is much stronger than if it could be predicted.”
Livingstone says that the neural pathways created by the pokie’s combination of wins, lights and music leads to signs of addiction similar to that of cocaine use.
“The sounds the machines made were in my dreams,” says Kate. “I thought about them when I wasn’t there. There were no [support] groups, there was no knowledge of how the machines are designed to interact with your brain that way.”
To the layperson, however, a poker machine is usually found annoying, further alienating the experience of being addicted to playing them. Why would someone want to be around such annoying jingles all day and night?
“I quickly knew I was out of control,” says Kate. “But in the same sense, if I had a win I would think; ‘I’m in control, I’m good at this, I can do this’.”
Kate’s addiction was “interrupted” when she met her husband at age 19, and she assumed that her gambling past was behind her. Within four years, they had a young child, were running their own small business, and living with her husband’s parents while building their own home.
Kate knows now that stress was her main trigger for gambling, but at that stage, no dots had been connected as to why she had become addicted. Her husband still didn’t know about her past and the cause hadn’t been addressed in any meaningful way.
“One day, I was out trying to source some tiles for our bathroom,” recalls Kate.
“We had money in the bank for the build and I thought, ‘Remember that time you put $100 into the machine and came away with $1000?’”
“I recognised that the environment I was living in was super stressful but I didn’t put two and two together to work out that my old [gambling] triggers were being activated.”
Within a month, Kate burnt through the $20,000 they had saved for the build of their house and had no choice but to disclose her addiction to her husband.
“I didn’t [recognise] his depression and him not being able to deal with any more stress,” says Kate. “His reaction was, ‘Are we together? Yes? Then don’t worry about the money.’
Kate’s first attempt at reaching out after disclosing to her husband was to a telephone helpline at 3am. The operator kindly instructed her the solution was to “not wear shoes” as she would be refused entry to gambling establishments.
Kate relays this experience to me with a long pause at the end and a sad look in her eyes. She says this is when she first felt complete and utter hopelessness.
“I thought, ‘Wow, there really is no help … the only outcome I can expect is to not wear shoes. Can I ever trust myself with myself?’”
Kate then turned to a counselling service. The counsellor singled out her husband as the main stressor in her life, encouraging her to distance herself from her marriage, despite her husband’s unwavering support.
“That counsellor had [recently] been through divorce … I almost got counselled out of my marriage,” says Kate. “I was with her and thinking, ‘Yes, he’s contributing to my stress, this is all his fault’.”
Over a 12-year period, Kate estimates she put between $500,000 and $750,000 through poker machines. Her biggest win in one ‘press’ was $10,000.
“The 20th of January 2012, I sat crying behind a pokie machine,” says Kate.
“The thought of going home again and disappointing my family once more was too great. I didn’t want to keep existing is all I was going to do was relapse.”
Without an awareness of her addiction as being legitimately treatable, and in the absence of specialised gambling counselling, Kate found herself trapped.
“I was the point of total hopelessness. The only reason I’m sitting here right now is because I was pregnant, and I couldn’t figure out how to kill myself and not hurt the baby.”
Four years on, Kate has founded The Hope Project, a not-for-profit which helps those struggling with issues like addiction find the hope in their situation – something that Kate felt she couldn’t do without the right support.
“If we reconnect people and restore them back to society, we create hope, and kindness follows.”
While support systems failed to keep up with the technology to which Kate was addicted, in the near future, radical changes to the health system may alter the way we view the most common trope of addict – the drug user.
“Addiction has a lot of baggage attached to it, as a word.”
Chris Gough is the manager of the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy (CAHMA), and his perspective on addiction, or “dependence”, as he prefers, is a challenge to the way society marginalises addicts (“dependents”).
“From my point of view, the word addiction has a connotation that you have lost control in some way,” explains Chris. “If I said that I was addicted to heroin then that conjures up images of a person controlled by that drug and who will do anything to fulfil the need to have that drug because they have no control over themselves.”
Chris’ perspective is unique because he has a 360-degree view of pharmacological dependence.
“My personal experience is someone who, in my late teens, used a lot of cannabis and came into contact with heroin. I smoked heroin for a while and became dependent on [it]. I started injecting heroin,” explains Chris.
Now Chris advocates against the stigma and discrimination of drug users at CAHMA, which also serves as a point of reference for organisations like ACT Health in creating more effective health policy.
Chris’ personal drug use didn’t stop him from graduating with a Bachelor of Entomology (Honours) in Developmental Parasitology from the University of Queensland. In fact, he believes it had little impact on his life until his tolerance to opiates grew to a point-of-financial impossibility.
“My use became problematic in that I couldn’t support the cost of my use,” explains Chris.
Due to the human body’s capacity for increasing its tolerance for opiates, Chris explains that heroin addiction escalates no matter the frequency or quality of the product. Chris says that someone with a low tolerance to opiates who is heroin dependent will spend anywhere from $50-100 per day, while “the sky’s the limit” for dependents with higher tolerances, and it will always go up.
While Chris hasn’t been dependent on heroin for years, he’s currently on a pharmacotherapy methadone program, a concept that challenges the black and white notion of addiction even in its most basic form – it allows someone to stay dependent for as long as they feel is necessary.
As Sue attests, going cold turkey on hard drugs is “just horrible” and pharmacotherapy programs provide an alternative in the form of oral ‘doses’ of synthetic opiates like methadone to help dependants remove drug use from their life. But there are serious limitations placed on those on programs.
Participants must take ‘doses’ in front of a pharmacist and their ‘take away’ allowance – the number of doses they’re allowed to take in private per week – are strictly capped, meaning that participants capacity to travel, even intestate, is extremely limited.
According to Chris, pharmacotherapy programs exist in a legal and social grey area. If you’re on a methadone program you’re not ‘using’ drugs, however, your body is technically dependent on opiates. Even if a person’s participation is the result of a conscious decision to kick a drug dependency, the stigma that surrounds drug use bleeds into the perception of pharmacotherapy participants.
Chris says he knows of people that had been bullied at work because they had been ‘outed’ as being on a methadone program. But this stigma may be challenged sooner than society can adjust its expectations, with unprecedented developments in drug use research.
On 17 June 2016, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and the Faculty of Public Health, two of the UK’s peak health bodies, released the report Taking a New Line on Drugs.
In a groundbreaking and deeply controversial move, they announced that “Internationally, increasing numbers of countries, alongside the World Health Organisation, are recognising the failures of prohibition-centric drugs policies.”***
The report called for the decriminalisation of all drugs, deeming the war on drugs “a failure” and classifying drug use as a health problem, not a criminal one.
Chris couldn’t agree more.
“The gains that I see for decriminalisation that it takes drug use out of the criminal world and you could regulate and tax [all drugs],” explains Chris.
“In the long term, you essentially destroy all of the stigma and discrimination associated with [drugs] and you allow people to access health services if they have problematic use.”
“It’s never been seen that by decriminalising or legalising a drug there’s an increase of a drug’s use, which is the main problem people see with it, like, ‘if we legalise heroin everybody will want to do it!’ That simply hasn’t been the case. In places like Portugal who have tried this, there’s good evidence to show the contrary.”
Chris is correct. Portugal decriminalised all drug use in 2001 – as of 2015, there were three drug overdose deaths for every million citizens in Portugal**. To give some perspective, the EU average is 17.3 per million and 44.6 per million in the UK.
“My argument would be that my heroin dependency would never have been problematic if, instead of having to pay $300-500 per gram of it, I could get a script and go to a pharmacy and for $6.10 and get a [dose] of diacetylmorphine [the chemical term for heroin].”
Discrimination and stigma cloak addiction to the point where Kate once told her husband, “If anyone finds out about [my addiction], I will kill myself.”
“The scariest moment of my life was putting myself out there publicly and being honest about my past – I was so afraid of how people would judge me,” she says.
Chris agrees. He says that when people see someone they perceive to be hard on their luck, sleeping rough or dangerous looking, they immediately assume that drugs are involved.
“What they don’t understand is that while they’re looking at this person, 10 other drug users have walked past them wearing suits”.
This is what modern addiction looks like.
* Bright Lights, Big Losses: How poker machines create addicts and rob them blind, Charles Livingstone, published 20 October 2015, Read it here.
** Taking a New Line on Drugs, Royal Society of Public Health, released 17 June, 2016, Read it here.
*** Portugal Decriminalised Drugs 14 years ago and now hardly anyone dies from overdosing, Chris Ingraham, published 7 June 2015. Read it here.
All photography by Martin Ollman
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